How tablets are invading the classroom


You’ve been hearing about it for decades. Equipping all students with computers has long been a holy grail for classrooms around the world, but it just hasn’t happened. Sure, many classrooms have a computer, but most students still read out of textbooks, write with pencils on paper, and take notes off of a chalkboard. But there are signs that change is afoot. The rise of touch tablets has triggered a land grab in schools all around the country. Education officials with money to spend are overwhelmingly opting for tablets over PCs, and all of the major players in the tech industry – from Apple to Amazon, and even Microsoft – are gearing up for a fight. 

Touch tablets offer a cheap, and more intuitive alternative to laptops and desktop PCs. They also dispense with the need to carry around bags full of books. Tablets may be the next big thing in education, and everyone wants in.

The stage is set

The integration of technology into the classroom has been slow so far, but things are changing. Adoption of tablets and has already taken off in higher education, and is beginning to  filter all the way down to kindergarten classrooms. Here are some key trends.

  • IT spending is up: The Center for Digital Education estimated education spending on IT reached $19.7 billion in 2010-11 and it’s expected to rise again in 2011-12. Despite school budget cuts, officials are spending more money on tech than ever before. Traditional educational publishers are devoting more attention and budget to the digital world and tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon are trying to push their devices into schools.
  • Hardware spending is up: According to an Education Technology Market Watch report, there’s a clear move to channel funding into technology and the bulk of that spending (55 to 60 percent) in middle schools (K12) is on hardware. 
  • Digital textbooks taking off: Project Tomorrow reports that 27 percent of middle school and 35 percent of high school students use digital textbooks. On top of that, the Pearson Foundation reports that 58 percent of college students prefer a digital format for textbooks. Tablets and e-readers are the ideal windows for that content.
  • iPad tests: In McAllen, Texas, public school officials have opted for iPads over desktop PCs and plan to distribute 25,000 iPads over the next few years. The total spend of $20 million in the McAllen district covers the cost of the iPads and also the Wi-Fi network and training needed to support their use. The program includes iPads for third grade and upwards and iPods for pre-kindergarten up to second grade. San Diego distributed 26,000 iPads to students this year and Chicago public schools have around 20,000 iPads.
  • Worldwide adoption: Further afield in Scotland, the government recently announced plans to spend £60 million ($95 million) on tablets for universities, colleges, and schools. It’s fast becoming a worldwide trend.
  • Bring Your Own Tablet: There is also a mirroring of the BYOD trend which is sweeping through the business world. Many students will soon have their own tablets or smartphones and will choose to use them for school work. Some educational establishments are looking at voucher systems to enable students to buy their own devices. Budgets in education are always tight and so any solution that can help reduce the cost is bound to be explored. If students were expected to bring their own devices, then those with parents who can’t afford tablets could be equipped from a smaller school-owned pool of devices.
  • Promising case studies:Learning Untethered case study offers a valuable insight into the pros and cons of tablet implementation in the classroom. The project involved equipping a 5th grade class of 27 students with 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab devices at a cost of around $200 per student. Though there were a number of technical issues the results were overwhelmingly positive with greater student engagement.

Contenders for the top classroom tablet

The numbers are beginning to add up and it’s looking like tablets are going to become commonplace in schools – but which tablets will win? Will Apple’s lead with the iPad push it into a lasting position of dominance in the classroom, or will new competitors like the Nook, Kindle, and even Microsoft Surface make a sizable dent in Apple’s plans? Let’s take a look at how some of the best options compare on price, usability, and ecosystem.

Apple’s iPad

In an investor call this summer, Apple CEO Tim Cook said “Education tends to be a conservative institution, but we’re not seeing that at all on the iPad.” He went on to explain that “The adoption of the iPad in education is something I’ve never seen in any technology.”

That came on the back of the revelation that Apple had sold almost one million iPads to high schools and colleges in that quarter alone. The company has made a concerted push to interest the education market and the attempt to offer digital school textbooks with iBooks 2 and iTunes U was a big part of that.

Obvious drawbacks to the iPad are the price and the closed nature of Apple’s ecosystem. On the other hand, there are a lot of high quality educational apps, and the iPad is easy to use. The cost could be reduced by investing in older generation iPads or even considering the new iPad Mini. 

Apple got a head start in the tablet market with the iPad and the education sector is no different. Whether it can maintain that lead remains to be seen.

Amazon’s Kindle

Competition in the education market is set to increase in the coming year and Amazon wants in. The online retailer has been selling Kindle devices to U.S. schools at bulk discounts. Considering they are already break-even devices with relatively low price tags, that cost saving could be a huge incentive for schools and colleges.

Kindle trials have been running in more than one hundred schools in Florida and Texas. The basic Kindle e-readers are being used as an alternative to heavy bags full of books, but Amazon is also looking to push the Kindle Fire tablets. The Whispercast service allows educators to easily manage fleets of Kindle devices, and the ability for teachers to restrict access and set limits could be a real selling point for Amazon’s tablets.

Barnes & Noble’s Nook

The bookseller Barnes & Noble is just as serious as Amazon when it comes to catering for education and its line of Nook e-readers and tablets are very similar to the Kindle range in terms of functionality and price. Barnes & Noble also offers discounts tailored services for educators, customized school accessories, and charging carts designed for classrooms.

Nook trials have been undertaken in a Colorado high school and Chicago Public Schools also purchased some Nook readers.

Of course, the closed eco-system argument about Apple also applies to Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Google’s Nexus 7 and other Android tablets

Whether it’s the Nexus 7 from Google, a Samsung Galaxy Tab, or another open Android tablet, there are some cost-effective options out there. You can get a relatively powerful 10.1-inch Android tablet for a few hundred dollars and the Google Play Store offers a decent range of educational apps. Ambitious educators and school systems could also develop their own apps and integrate directly into school services more easily than they could with an iPad.

Imposing restrictions on what students can do with open Android tablets will be an obvious concern, but there are fleet management options out there that offer educators more customization options than closed ecosystem devices like the Nook, Kindle, or iPad.

Microsoft Surface

The Microsoft Surface may be the new kid on the block, but it has some clear advantages over the competition. Its detachable keyboard covers solve the typing issue present with standard touch tablets. Touchscreens are best for consumption, but students need to learn typing skills and they need to be able to actually work on their tablets. In a recent interview, Bill Gates reiterated this point. When asked about tablets in higher education, he pointed out that, “Just giving people devices has a really horrible track record. You really have to change the curriculum and the teacher.” He also went on to say that, “…it’s never going to work on a device where you don’t have a keyboard-type input. Students aren’t there just to read things. They’re actually supposed to be able to write and communicate. And so it’s going to be more in the PC realm – it’s going to be a low-cost PC that lets them be highly interactive.” Perhaps he’s alluding to an education push from Microsoft?

There’s also the native support for Microsoft’s Office suite of software, which is still the standard in most workplaces and educational establishments around the world. Familiarity shouldn’t be underestimated as a potential draw. Windows is found everywhere and that doesn’t look likely to change in the near future.

The Surface also offers great enterprise management solutions and security that will work well for schools. Microsoft is much more experienced when it comes to fleet management; many schools may see it as a safe pair of hands when compared to Android.

Price will be an issue, but the Surface is a more well-rounded device than the iPad, so we won’t be surprised if it is able to muscle into the education market.

Are we getting ahead of ourselves?

Are tablets really the answer for education? We think so, but the truth is that touch devices are so popular right now that they’re being touted as the answer to everything. A few years back, before tablets burst onto the scene, there was a push to equip students with netbooks, but it was met with mixed results. Having an entire school filled with tablet-equipped students has obvious benefits, but cost and device management are serious hurdles to overcome.

We’d love to hear your opinions on this. If you’re a student using a tablet or e-reader for your studies or an educator with experience of employing tablets in the classroom then please weigh in. Are tablets the future of education? Which device would get your recommendation? Post a comment.

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